It was always going to take a while with such a big country but America have caught the football bug. Okay, they’ve had to name it soccer and endure horrific moments like Diana Ross’ penalty malfunction but football in U.S.A is going from strength to strength.
They can look at their World Cup winning women’s team, respected mens team and a MLS capable of pulling high calibre players. The MLS was the third highest attended sport in America last year, behind only the MLB and NFL. Despite losing Thierry Henry to retirement the league has recruited several big names to keep interest in the league. English icons Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will become rivals again stateside, at L.A Galaxy and New York City FC respectively. Frank will be joined by ex Barcelona forward David Villa and bearded maestro Andrea Pirlo, as New York City look to secure a large fanbase. Though to find when football first started making waves in America, you’d have to look back further.
North American Soccer League
The North American Soccer League formed in 1968 and became the first majorly successful football league in America. popularity peaked in the late 70’s as some of the world’s best joined the league. New York Cosmos in particular had Franz Beckenbauer in defence and Pelé upfront for their trio of titles in 1977, 1978 and 1980. The league also attracted George Best and Johan Cruyff, with wages offered much higher than in European competitions.
Pele pictured with Brian Joy and Eusebio
Unfortunately, all good things must end. Despite attendances showing the support available, particular in New York, the NASL folded in 1985. With it’s eyes seemingly too big for it’s belly, the NASL team’s player budget far outweighed incoming revenue. This proved to be their demise, Pelé’s retirement also not helping manners. Thankfully this wasn’t to be the end of football in the mainstream.
Major Indoor Soccer League
Adapting football to suit America’s fast paced needs seemed a sensible idea, thankfully along came the Major Indoor Soccer League. Made up of 15 minute quarters, the 6 a side game was fully enclosed (like hockey) allowing off the wall plays, normally reserved for school playgrounds. The frenetic, fast paced and skilful game took America by storm and again, the league attracted European footballers with attractive wage packets.
This lead to footballers who were previously unknown to Americans become heroes in the MISL. In particular, the Lord Of Indoors Slaviša Žungul. Žungul finished the MISL as the all time highest points scorer, featuring for New York Arrows, San Diego Sockers and Tacoma Stars. The striker scored 652 goals and got 471 assists in his time in the MISL, though his move there was incredibly controversial.
(Zungul is number 7 for New York Arrows who play in Red)
Starting his career at Hadjuk Split, Zungul became a vital player for the team and a fan favourite. Due to strict Yugoslavian laws, the striker looked set to complete mandatory army service and be 28 before he could even consider moves abroad. Unhappy with unpaid wages and tempted by vast wage offers from America, the striker asked for permission to accompany his girlfriend on a business trip to New York. Unbeknownst to the club, Zungul had already agreed to play for New York Arrows. This caused mania back home, as FIFA banned Zungul from any FIFA events, meaning MISL was his only option.
Despite attendances being solid for the league, averaging attendances of over 7400 for their 14 seasons, in the end the league again fell down to its financial difficulties. In 1992 the league folded, though indoor football would continue it’s popularity in America. The MISL has since been rebranded twice, though the latest incarnation folded in 2014.
World Cup 1994
On 4th July 1988, the U.S.A had more to celebrate than usual as they were announced as hosts of the 1994 World Cup. At first the decision seemed controversial, football’s greatest tournament heading to a country with no major national football league. What followed was one of the most memorable world cups to date, buoyed by superb support and some superb footballing sides.
Starting with one of the craziest opening ceremonies to date, including Oprah Winfrey falling over on live tv, though the real highlight was Diana Ross’ penalty. Set with the simple task of placing the penalty in the other direction from the goalkeeper, Diana completely missed the target. Cue the goalposts splitting up, set to break in two when Ross’ penalty hit the back of the net. You can watch the hilarious video below:
When the tournament started, the action didn’t slow down. Diego Maradona featured in his last World Cup, finishing off a slick Argentina move before eventually failing a drug test and being kicked out of the tournament. Brazilian Bebeto celebrated the birth of his son by pretending to rock the baby, a celebration that would stay in the footballing world for years.
Then there was the final, a Brazil team featuring Romario faced up against a strong Italy team. A 0-0 draw after extra time lead to the first ever penalty shootout in a World Cup final. After Brazil took a 3-2 lead after 4 penalties each, Roberto Di Baggio needed to score to keep his team in it. Unfortunately he produced a penalty even worse than Diana Ross’, scooping over the bar as Brazil won their fourth world cup.
With attendances remaining the highest at a World Cup tournament, it was clear there was an audience for football in America. Then along came Major League Soccer.
The rise of MLS
Founded in 1993, though not playing its first season until 1996, the MLS was formed as part of the bid to host the 1994 world cup. With America truly taken under the football spell, the MLS saw sizeable crowds in it’s first full season, with an average of over 17,000 per game. This was buoyed by a trend that continues in the MLS today, marquee foreign signings. Notably Colombian hero Carlos Valderrama. Though the first season also saw the emergence of young American talent, with Brad Friedel impressing massively in the early MLS years.
With the size of America, a different format was required. A trip from Newcastle to Plymouth is long but has nothing on New York to Seattle. Due to this the league was split into the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, with teams playing in their respective leagues to reduce travel times. Then the top 6 teams in each conference go through to the play-offs. The third placed team play the sixth and the fourth placed play the fifth in a single game to decide who gets through. The two victorious teams then play the first and second placed team in the league over two legs. Then the winners of that play each other to decide who wins the conference. Then the MLS cup is played between the winner of each conference. Simple, right?
Despite the first season’s success, the MLS looked in trouble for the next few years as money problems and dwindling audiences plagued the league. With ambitions to expand the league briefly grew to 12 teams, though 2 folded in 2002. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, buoyed in worldwide status in 2007 by the arrival of David Beckham. Now the MLS finds itself with 20 teams, a string of high profile imports and a solid reputation for bringing through talent for the national team.
World Cup Successes
In 2014 it would’ve been a sensible to bet against U.S.A getting out of their world cup group. In Brazil they were given the unenviable task of facing Ghana, Portugal and future champions Germany in a difficult group. What happened next would inspire Barack Obama to congratulate the team on their superb efforts.
By beating Ghana, drawing to Portugal and losing to Germany, U.S.A did enough to get through. Where again, they were given a tough draw in the form of a dramatically improving Belgium side. With a 0-0 scoreline at full time the game ended 2-1 to Belgium, narrowly beating the brave American side. Tim Howard in particular impressed, registering the most saves from a goalkeeper in a world cup game. Though the mens side is only half of U.S.A’s world cup success.
Despite the mens team only recently catching the attention of the world, the Women’s team have regularly been at the pinnacle of football. The National Women’s Soccer League includes some of the worlds best players and despite it’s small size, sees a high quality of football displayed and is respected worldwide.
Then there’s the International side. The U.S.A Women’s team have been a dominant side since their formation, with their lowest ever FIFA ranking being second in the world. In fact they have regularly been the highest ranked in the world, only sharing that honour with a superb Germany side. The win in Canada displayed the years of hard work and skill possessed in the American team.
Not only did they win in the final, they dominated Japan as they eased to a 5-2 victory, this was after already knocking out favourites Germany in the semi final. It was a great send off for top scorer Abby Wambach who lifted the trophy as possibly her last involvement for the national team. It was another victory that inspired the nation and should see Women’s football grow further in popularity across the pond.
With America having the resources and nation size to breed a future team of world beaters, it could only be a matter of time before the men’s team repeat the women’s superb feat. Watch this space.